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Friends of acronyms, here comes the OMT

By JĂ©rĂ´me Creel and Xavier Timbeau

We had the OMD with its Orchestral Manœuvres in the Dark, and now the OMT with its Orchestral Manœuvres in the [liquidity] Trap, or more precisely, “Outright Monetary Transactions”, which is undoubtedly clearer. The OMT is a potentially effective mechanism that gives the European Central Bank (ECB) the means to intervene massively in the euro zone debt crisis so as to limit the differences between interest rates on euro zone government bonds. The possibility that a country that comes into conflict with its peers might leave the euro zone still exists, but if there is a common desire to preserve the euro then the ECB can intervene and play a role comparable to that of the central banks of other major states. Opening this door towards an escape route from the euro zone’s sovereign debt crisis has given rise to great hope. Nevertheless, certain elements, such as conditionality, could quickly pose problems.

The OMT is simply a programme for the buyback of government bonds by the European Central Bank, like SMP 1.0 (the Securities Markets Programme) which it replaces but limited to States that are subject to a European Financial Stability Fund / European Stability Mechanism (EFSF / ESM) programme and thus benefiting from European conditional aid. For the ECB to intervene, the country concerned must first negotiate a macroeconomic adjustment plan with the European Commission and the European Council, and apply it. The ECB, potentially members of the European Parliament or the IMF can be a party to this (these institutions – the Commission, the ECB and the IMF – form the Troika of men in black, so famous and feared in Greece). Secondly, and more importantly, the country will be under the supervision of the Troika thereafter.

So if Italy and Spain want to benefit from the purchase of their bonds by the ECB, then their governments will have to submit to an EFSF or ESM adjustment programme. This does not necessarily imply that the plan imposed will be more drastic in terms of austerity than what these governments might have already devised or implemented (the doctrinaire approach in the management of public finances is highly contagious in Europe), but it will require the two countries to submit ex ante to outside scrutiny of any adjustment plan they develop and ex post to control by the Commission and the Council. If the country under surveillance starts ex post to veer away from implementing the adjustment plan, then it could, of course, withdraw from the programme, but its sovereign bonds would no longer be covered by OMTs. They would lose the support of their peers and would thus sail into the financial markets in uncharted waters. That would probably be the first step towards a default or an exit from the euro.

Furthermore, the ECB has not committed itself to absorbing all the bonds issued and thus maintains a real threat capacity: if the country were to rebel, it could be obliged to face higher rates. The OMT thus introduces both a carrot (lower rates) and a stick (to let the rates rise, sell the bonds the ECB holds in its portfolio and thereby push rates upward), upon each new issue. The OMT is therefore akin to being put under direct control (conditionality) with progressive sanctions and an ultimate threat (exiting the programme).

The ECB says that its interventions will mainly cover medium-term securities (maturity between 1 and 3 years), without excluding longer-term maturities, and with no quantitative limits. Note that short / medium-term emissions usually represent a small proportion of total emissions, which tend to be for 10 years. However, in case of a crisis, intervention on short-term maturities provides a breath of fresh air, especially as maturing 10-year securities can be refinanced by 3-year ones. This gives the Troika additional leverage in terms of conditionality: the OMT commitment on securities is only for three years and must be renewed after three years. The financial relief for countries subject to the programme may be significant in the short term. For example, in 2012 Spain, which has not yet taken this step, will have issued around 180 billion euros of debt. If the OMT had reduced Spain’s sovereign borrowing rates throughout 2012, the gain would have amounted to between 7 and 9 billion for the year (and this could be repeated in 2013 and 2014, at least). This is because, instead of a 10-year rate of 7%, Spain could be benefitting from the 2% rate at which France borrows for 10 years, or instead of its 4.3% rate at 3 years, Spain could have borrowed at 0.3% (France’s 3-year sovereign rate). This is the maximum gain that can be expected from this programme, but it is significant: this roughly represents the equivalent of the budgetary impact of the recent VAT hike in Spain (or a little less than one Spanish GDP point). This would not alter Spain’s fiscal situation definitively, but it would end the complete nonsense that saw Spaniards paying much more for their debt to compensate their creditors for a default that they have been striving arduously not to trigger.

It can even be hoped (as can be seen in the easing of Spanish sovereign rates by almost one point following the ECB announcement on Thursday, 6 September 2012, or the almost half a point reduction in Italian rates) that the mere existence of this mechanism, even if Spain or Italy do not use it (and thus do not submit to control), will be enough to reassure the markets, to convince them that there will be no default or exit from the euro and therefore no justification for a risk premium.

The ECB announced that it would terminate its preferred creditor status for the securities. This provision, which had been intended to reduce the risk to the ECB, led to downgrading the quality of securities held outside the ECB and thus reducing the impact of ECB interventions on rates. By acquiring a government bond, the ECB shifted the risk onto the bonds held by the private sector, since in case of a default the Bank was a preferred creditor that took priority over private holders of bonds of the same type.

The ECB explained that its OMT operations will be fully sterilized (the impact on the liquidity in circulation will be neutral), which, if it is taken at its word, implies that other types of operations (purchases of private securities, lending to banks) will be reduced correspondingly. What do we make of this? The example of the SMP 1.0 can be drawn on in this regard. SMP 1.0 was indeed also accompanied by sterilization. This sterilization involved short-term deposits (1 week, on the ECB’s liabilities side), allocated in an amount equal to the sums involved in the SMP (209 billion euros to date, on the ECB’s assets side). Each week, the ECB therefore collects 209 billion euros in short-term fixed-term deposits. This is therefore a portion of bank deposits that the ECB assigns to the sterilization instrument, without there being sterilization in the strict sense (because this does not prevent an increase in the size of the ECB’s balance sheet nor does it reduce the potential liquidity in circulation). The mention of sterilization in the OMT appears to be an effort at presenting this in a way that can convince certain states, such as Germany, that this monetary policy will not be inflationary and therefore not contrary to the mandate imposed on the Bank by the Treaty on the European Union. Currently, and because the crisis remains unresolved, private banks have substantial deposits with the ECB (out of fear of entrusting these deposits to other financial institutions), which gives it considerable flexibility to prevent the announced sterilization from affecting the liquidity in circulation (the ECB has a little more than 300 billion euros in deposits that are not mobilized for sterilization). The ECB can then probably use the current accounts (by blocking them for a week), which poses no difficulty since the ECB lends to the banks on tap through long-term refinancing operations (LTROs). At worst, the ECB would lose money in the sterilization operation in case of a gap in compensation between the fixed-term deposits and the loans granted to banks. Sterilization could therefore lead to this kind of absurd accounting, but wind up, in a situation of monetary and financial crisis, having no impact on liquidity. On the other hand, if the situation normalizes, the constraint of sterilization would weigh more heavily. We’re not there yet, but when we do get there, the ECB needs to limit lending to the economy or to accept an increase in liquidity if the OMT continues to be implemented for some euro zone members.

The deal that is now on the table places the euro zone countries in a formidable dilemma. On the one hand, acceptance of the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance of the euro zone (TSCG) determines eligibility for the EFSF and the ESM [1], and therefore now determines eligibility for the OMT programme. Refusing to sign the fiscal treaty means rejecting in advance the potential intervention of the ECB, and thus accepting that the crisis continues until the breakup of the euro zone or until a catastrophic default on a sovereign debt. On the other hand, signing the treaty means accepting the principle of an indiscriminately restrictive fiscal strategy (the rule on public debt reduction included in the TSCG will be devastating) that will trigger a recession in the euro zone in 2012 and perhaps in 2013.

Signing the treaty also means relieving the pressure of the markets, but only to wind up submitting solely to the Troika and to the baseless belief that the fiscal multipliers are low, that European households are Ricardian and that the sovereign debt is still holding back growth. It is true that lowering sovereign interest rates, particularly those of Italy and Spain, will create some breathing room. But the main gain from lower rates would be to spread the fiscal consolidation over a longer period of time. Interest rates place a value on time, and reducing them means granting more time. The debts contracted at negative real interest rates are not ordinary debts, and do not represent the same kind of burden as debts issued at prohibitively high rates.

It would be a terrible waste to gain new maneuvering room (the OMT) only to bind one’s hands immediately (the TSCG and the Troika’s blind fiscal strategy). Only a change in fiscal strategy would make it possible to take advantage of the door opened by the ECB. In short, saving the euro will not help if we do not first save the EU from the disastrous social consequences of fiscal blindness.

[1] Paragraph 5 of the preamble to the Treaty establishing the European Stability Mechanism states: “This Treaty and the TSCG are complementary in fostering fiscal responsibility and solidarity within the economic and monetary union. It is acknowledged and agreed that the granting of financial assistance in the framework of new programmes under the ESM will be conditional, as of 1 March 2013, on the ratification of the TSCG by the ESM Member concerned and, upon expiration of the transposition period referred to in Article 3(2) TSCG on compliance with the requirements of that article.”

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